Sad Sinkings: Hood and Bismarck 1941, Tirpitz 1944

Posted December 28th, 2012

Reading 'Target Tirpitz' by Patrick Bishop (2012).

There's something stark about the sea battles of World War II, especially those fought in the cold waters of the North Atlantic and further north off Norway where it's even colder. Sinkings are always poignant; when they are deliberate and lives are lost they are horrific, regardless of the whys and wherefors. Some seem to capture people's imagination more than others: the sinkings of Hood and Bismarck in May 1941.

Tirpitz, sister ship of Bismarck, was holed up 40 miles down a Norwegian fiord when it (finding it hard to refer to ships as 'she') was finally sunk by British bombers in November 1944 with the loss of around 1,000 crew. The Tirpitz story is just as interesting as that of Hood and Bismarck but the latter met their fate where great battleships were supposed to be - steaming into action on the high seas, which is probably why they are more famous. Another book was written (2010): 'Killing the Bismarck' by Iain Ballantyne, that "alters our perception of this legendary episode ... the terrible reality of which has never been fully depicted in print before." Perhaps so, but the gist of the story has been known since day one. Incidentally, for Kindle, Ballantyne's book is four times the price of Bishop's.

Sea battles of World War II (I suppose this must apply to all sea battles) stand out from land battles in a few ways:

(1) Men o' War moved like chessmen on a giant board, the sense of drama heightened by the ships' strange beauty, the struggle against the ocean and absence of distractions on its vast surface, and the black smoke that marked a warship's sinister presence beyond the horizon (and for the luckless crew, its destruction).

(2) No surrender. Sea battles were usually a fight to the death and to lose was to sink, in the case of Hood and Bismarck and most of the men on board, thousands of feet down amongst underwater mountains and fissures in the blackness of the ocean bottom, gone forever, no funeral, nothing. [note: see * below]

(3) It is not as if the crews were actively involved in decisions affecting their personal fates: where to sail, when to attack, firing the guns. Most were encased in the bowels of the ships, unseen and unseeing, to survive or not survive by the immediate actions of commanders, navigators and gunners.

The numbers. Between them Hood and Bismarck carried over 3,600 men. The terrible battle that began with Hood being blown to pieces by a single shot and concluded with the destruction of Bismarck two days later has been described many times over the years so there is no purpose in dwelling on it here, though it might be worth a reminder that in May 1941 Britain and the Commonwealth stood alone in trying to prevent Bismarck from reaching the Atlantic to sink as many allied merchant convoys as it could. The loss of life, tragic though it was on both sides, was therefore less than it might have been.

A few photos, all freely available in the public domain:


HMS Hood: launched 1920 (crew 1,419), sunk May 1941 (3 survivors)


KMS Bismarck: launched 1940 (crew 2,220), sunk May 1941 (114 survivors)


The end of Hood, 6.00am 24 May 1941 (from Prinz Eugen film)


Final attack on Bismarck, morning of 27 May 1941


The end of Bismarck, 10:39am 27 May 1941

The grimness of the black-and-white images is especially haunting. Their indistinctness leaves much to the imagination, but it is impossible to imagine being aboard Hood when the whole ship erupted in a massive explosion, or on Bismarck in its dying minutes. The remains of the ships on the sea bottom have been explored in modern times and they are rightly designated as war graves.

For the record: HMS Mashona (F59) took part in the final battle, coming under air attack from the Luftwaffe while returning to port on 28 May 1941 - sunk off the coast of Galway with the loss of about 48 men.

Further reading:

I am still reading 'Target Tirpitz'.


Tirpitz in Norway


The sad wreck of Tirpitz

*Iain Ballantyne has apparently written that before it was sunk, Bismarck hoisted a black flag for parley. It was also reported in the British press (2011) that a Morse code flash and semaphore flags conveying some form of surrender were seen but that the Royal Navy was determined to follow Churchill's order and avenge the sinking of Hood.

Page last modified: October 03, 2018


Posted by Iain Ballantyne

January 4th, 2013

Not sure if you have read my book – as it is unclear from your article above – but the essence of what you say here accords with what its narratives conveys – PLUS in 'KTB' there is plenty of fresh material from people who were there that has never been published before. The newspaper reports of the 'black flag' related to one of the eye witnesses (Tommy Byers). They were essentially drawing on material in my book. One of HMS Rodney's officers also saw signs and possibly even a rating in Dorsetshire. My book does not suggest the Royal Navy was determined to follow Churchill's order per se (and I do not even quote it in the book as my suspicion is that he never actually issued it in the fashion many people accept). The pursuit and destruction of Bismarck was a very personal enterprise, especially in the wake of Hood's loss. The final battle was a brutal and horrific affair, revealing that naval warfare is very far from being a chess game. The primary objective of my book was to build on the many interviews I conducted with veterans over the years (sadly, now nearly all gone) and present the fresh perspective that many books seemed to be overlooking in their eagerness to present the standard account of this Action. That means the British view, via not only my own original source material but also fresh accounts lodged with museums since previous accounts were written. As for the price of the Kindle edition, I would agree it is a little steep, but while Patrick Bishop's book is published by a large London publisher, Pen & Sword is a much smaller specialist imprint and therefore probably needs to sell it for higher unit cost. I had no hand in setting the price. The hardback (and forthcoming paperback) are good options though. Finally, you rightly point out the loss of life after the battle – and 'Killing the Bismarck' also looks at the many British ships that took part in the Action of May 1941 but which were later sunk (with casualties many times more than caused in the destruction of either Bismarck or Hood). In terms of comparing the fate of Tirpitz with Bismarck – one of course broke out into the Atlantic and could not escape the RN net, while the other was trapped in a fjord and ultimately sunk by aircraft. They may have tied down many British naval and air units, but both German battleships were in the end a failure operationally – at great cost in lives.

Posted by Patrick

January 4th, 2013

Noted, thanks. I suppose it's the sort of thing Churchill might have said (even if he didn't) but I agree with the need for historical accuracy. If flags were hoisted and ignored it does seem to throw a different light on things.

I have read the free taster chapter Amazon provide from 'Killing the Bismarck' (for Kindle) and will bite the bullet bought the book.

Posted by Ron Muller

July 10th, 2016

Tirpitz and Bismarck are only two, albeit, noted examples of lost life. Father saw a few of the German capital ships and survived the war. His comments on the b and t was simple; the were obsolete before they were built. The nazi command didn't do the navy any favors. Nor any other branch of the armed forces for that matter.

Strasbourg shelled my father as his group held a small island off of the coast of France. 10 x 14" guns would leave an impression most people would want to forget. His story, just as so many others, would just want to say, I mattered too.


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